Two weeks ago in the run-up to Halloween, I visited Salem, Massachusetts, for the first time since the pandemic began. In renewing my annual Halloween pilgrimage, I was bowled over by what I found in the Witch City: bigger crowds, longer lines and a wider and welcome array of merchandise geared toward many different religious traditions and ethnic identities.
Amid the curious crowds in black capes and conical hats, bags overflowing with DIY spell kits and candles to enhance prosperity, I overheard the same question: Is magic really real?
For me, the answer is yes.
I am one of a million-plus Americans who — whether proudly, secretly or dabbling through the power of consumerism — practice some form of witchcraft. Witchcraft, which includes Wicca, paganism, folk magic and other New Age traditions, is one of the fastest-growing spiritual paths in America.
In 1990, Trinity College in Connecticut estimated there were 8,000 adherents of Wicca. In 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau figure was 342,000. A 2014 Pew Research Center study increased that projection several times over in assessing that 0.4% of Americans identified as pagan, Wiccan or New Age. (Most modern pagan worship, of which Wicca is one type, draws on pre-Christian traditions in revering nature.) By 2050, it said, the number of Americans practicing “other religions” — faiths outside Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism — would triple “due largely to switching into other religions (such as Wicca and pagan religions).”
The precise number of witches in America is difficult to determine because many practitioners are solitary and, either by choice or circumstance, do not openly identify as such. But the growth is evident, especially to those who’ve made it their life’s work to study the community.
“It’s clearly increasing,” said Helen A. Berger, who spoke to me on the phone last week. Berger is one of the foremost academic experts on contemporary witchcraft and paganism in America and draws knowledge about its appeal from surveys she’s co-conducted on the pagan community.
Wicca began to be practiced in America in the 1960s by feminists, environmentalists and those seeking a nonstructured spirituality, according to Berger. It was a largely underground movement, but commercial books about witchcraft published in the 1980s and 1990s productions like “Charmed” and “The Craft” created a surge of interest in youth. With the ability to find communities online and the decline in affiliation with traditional religions, witchcraft began its entry into the mainstream.
“The religion is individualistic in many ways,” Berger told me. “You can do your own thing. It’s not signing on to an institutional religion. It’s not signing on to a set of actions or beliefs that you must adhere to.”
I myself grew up with Italian folk magic passed down from generations of practitioners who melded pagan customs with Roman Catholicism. This kind of syncretism is not uncommon in witchcraft today.
In petitioning the archangel Michael for protection, for example, I will recite a prayer but also make offerings of wine, bay leaves and cloves. In addition to venerating Catholic saints, I light candles to the goddess Diana at every full moon and place small bundles of rosmarino, or rosemary, on my altar to honor the dead. This blending of faiths has been a seamless process for me and other folk magic practitioners despite what traditional religious authorities might say.
Sometimes my magic is as simple as reciting an old Neapolitan incantation over a glass of wine to strengthen the love between two people. Sometimes it requires more serious action, like piercing a clove of garlic with a sewing needle and spitting three times to break a spate of bad luck brought on by malocchio — the “evil eye.” Whether learned from a local healer or my grandmother as she blessed me by shoving salt in my pockets on my way out the door, I carry forward these old world rituals.
At the heart of these practices is the fact that witchcraft enables me to see the world through a more balanced lens. I’ve felt the reassuring presence of the otherworldly in the midst of difficult circumstances, and I know that magic happens when I summon the strength to draw boundaries or stir away the guilt that bubbles up if I choose self-care over self-sacrifice.
I am not alone in this experience. Online platforms like TikTok and Instagram offer tutorials on every aspect of magical practice. The witchcraft hashtag has over 7 million posts on Instagram and more than 11 billion views on TikTok or, as it’s known in the community, WitchTok. Podcasts about witchcraft enchant the airwaves. Along with crosses and Stars of David, major retailers like Walmart and Amazon sell the witchcraft symbol of the pentacle, pendulum divining tools and dried herbs for spells and rituals. The use of Tarot cards proliferates in lux magazines.
It’s understandable that some adherents have criticized the commercialization, arguing that Halloween witch costumes perpetuate negative stereotypes and the selling of DIY spell kits trivialize sacred practices.
But this trend has created space for recognition and representation. The proliferation of witchcraft reflects two timeless and universal urges: the need to draw meaning from chaos, and the desire to control the circumstances around us. With the dire catastrophes brought on by climate change, wars and the loss of rights, it’s not surprising that witchcraft appeals to those seeking to mend what’s broken in ourselves and the wider world.
There are also critics outside the community — those who look down on witchcraft in any form. A former colleague often broadcast her contempt for my “mumbo jumbo.” But after several weeks of terrible luck, she came to my office one day, quietly shut the door and asked for my help. Did I know any spells, any solutions that would upend the curse she believed she was suffering from?
Witches have long extolled the connection between energy and objects and people, so I understood her fear and desire to set things right. I’m not sure she’d ever admit it, but the help I gave her and the theory behind it has echoes in scientific and health practices today.
Look at quantum entanglement, at the heart of this year’s Nobel Prize for physics, which says that objects can influence each other in unseen ways even at great distances. Or consider the very popular mindfulness movement. Deep breathing exercises, positive affirmations and guided meditations to reduce stress and the effects of trauma — like spells — use the mind-body connection to foster self-care and improve circumstances.
Monday, as millions of people celebrate Halloween (known to witches as Samhain, the pagan festival honoring the dead), countless jack-o'-lanterns will decorate doorsteps throughout America. I will take particular comfort in knowing that these glowing pumpkins, a lasting pagan custom, are embraced by so many of us. It’s a reminder that magic can be both a beacon in the night and a source for hope and healing when we need it most.